Fire raised the ire of the Hindu fundamentalists in India after its nationwide release, and Water was watered down in the midst of its filming. Why is a constitutionally secular and historically tolerant country up in arms against its own less-than-sympathetic, yet arguably necessary, self-representations? Is the fire directed against the content of these films, or against its once homegrown and constrained, but now Canadian and “free”, director? Are western pronouncements of a lack of freedom of expression in developing societies like India producing such poetics of disturbance in their waters that a much needed self-appraisal is turning into a chauvinistic brand of religious nationalism?
Deepa Mehta, the director of a trilogy comprising Fire, Earth, and Water, is a Hindu woman whose films tackle patriarchy and fundamentalist religion. In an attack that is reminiscent of the religious and political vitriol targeted at Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, all three of Mehta’s films, but particularly Fire and Water, have been the subjects of critiques of too much freedom inside the country, and these critiques have in turn led those outside the country to condemn the Indian body-politic for its lack of freedom.
In the case of Fire, it may not be unreasonable to assume that the opposition to the film arose due its depiction of an unbridled version of female sexuality that challenged prevalent religious-patriarchal norms. Reading the local rebuttal of the movie in light of the struggle to define the role of women in a global context, Sujata Moorti argues, “local resistance to the global is manifested in a series of practices that invoke religion to regulate women; control over female bodies becomes a crucial strategy for rejecting the global” (“Inflamed Passions”, 20 June 2006). However, considering that Water was subject to the wrath of violent mobs right in the midst of its shooting in the ancient Hindu city of Varanasi, despite its script obtaining the approval of the Federal Government in India, the question arises—is religion merely an excuse to garner support for political battles? More importantly, are the political battles being fought in the name of a national cohesion that can only be achieved through “freedom” from the West?
As developing societies like India make their way along the complex path of economic liberalisation and socio-political fundamentalism, is it the responsibility of the “enlightened” West to guide them through their difficult journey to the epitome of freedom? Is the West, then, not only claiming to be “free”, but also exercising hegemony over the very concept of freedom by deciding whether or not a country is free? Can a country ever be free if a pseudo-free Western collective judges its degree of freedom? Perhaps the writings of Jasmine Yuen-Carrucan, an Australian who worked as a camera assistant on the film Water, can assist us in sorting through these questions:
There I was in India, sitting on the steps of this government office, clutching my piece of paper, fighting for the first time for the right for freedom of expression. I waved a little paper flag with all my heart but wondered whether it was the business of a foreigner such as myself to enter a country like India, steeped in religious traditions and strong political codes, and try to challenge them. I was, after all, only going to put my flag down and head home. Perhaps it was not my fight to pursue (“The Politics of Deepa Mehta’s Water”, 5 June 2006).
If the fight for freedom of expression is not that of the foreign crewmember, is it that of the diasporic filmmaker?
Reflecting on the protests by Sikhs in Britain against the play Behzti (Dishonour) by Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, who is herself a Sikh, Salil Tripathi issues a warning to those of the diaspora who dare to be self-critical: “The defiant and deviant will inevitably face the community’s shame and dishonour” (164). Is Mehta being subjected to a similar fate? In reference to the ire over Fire, Moorti observes, “Mehta’s status as a Canadian resident and the film’s disavowal of traditional norms were used to mark the product as western” (“Inflamed Passions”, 20 June 2006). The doubts over Mehta’s “Indianness” are reminiscent of the primitivist/nativist tendency towards authenticity that post-colonial discourse has been attempting to dismantle in favour of a hybrid existence. Significantly, in the wake of a lack of self-appraisal from the so-called authentic Others, is it not the responsibility of the diasporic intellectual, with his/her awareness of the permeability of boundaries, to point out the “unfreedom” of exerting political or religious control to prescribe a unitary definition of cultural identity? In an interview with Richard Phillips, Mehta comments on her constrained freedom:
The situation in India at the moment is that if you produce films with song and dance routines or unserious films, you are fine. It doesn’t matter how violent or vulgar they are. But if you want to make something even slightly introspective it is a no-no and you are accused of exploiting Indian culture. I keep on saying: Is Indian culture so weak that one film can destroy it? (“Deepa Mehta Speaks Out”, 5 June 2006).
It seems that with the non-availability of both films in India, and the diasporic status of this very critical piece, the arabesque statue rather than the living form that is “Indian culture” is far from being destroyed.
Perhaps it is time that “Westerners”, diasporic critics, and liberal “Easterners” tolerated the firing and subsequent watering down of democratic rights like the freedom of expression in non-Western countries. However, any defence of “unfreedom” would sound bizarre to our free-thinking Selves. If, in this age of post-modern uncertainties we are deconstructing our own freedom, and fragmenting our own identity, should we expect the same of the Others? Braidotti sums up the dilemma of feminist, black, and post-colonial subjects in a similar question: “how can we undo a subjectivity we have not even historically been entitled to yet?” (15). It appears, therefore, that before commenting on a particular society’s freedom or lack thereof, historical differences need to be acknowledged. While the current crisis of freedom in the West may not be entirely applicable to the East, its demonstration of freedom as “becoming” rather than “being” is perhaps indicative of a future we can all open ourselves to.